If the election is to be decided by independents (as I hypothesized in my last column), Romney continues to hold the advantage after this week’s debate. Obama’s job this time around was to give his base something to be fired up about. If Chris Matthews and the rest of the MSNBC crowd is any indication, he delivered. His problem is that the governor showed up and didn’t disappoint conservatives. His other problem—and it’s distinctly his, not Romney’s—is that the tone of the debate didn’t win over any undecided voters.
To be fair to the President, his was an impossible task. In order for him to win, Romney needed to be so over that top that those on the fence were unambiguously repulsed. It isn’t unlike counting on your opponent to scratch on the eight ball; Obama really had no control over how he would be perceived. Had he been the impotent guy who showed up a couple of weeks ago, it would have been over. Had he mirrored Biden’s spectacle, he would have lost the vote of anyone who went his way based on his amicability. So what to do? Smile more, interrupt felicitously, and vaguely maintain the mantra that Romney is a pathological liar with the hope that at some point the governor will snap.
Obama did what he could, and Romney, more than once, was caught off guard. But he didn’t blow his top.
The two first butted heads on energy. Romney pointed out that oil extraction on public land was down 14 percent on Obama’s watch, to which Obama replied (as he would throughout the debate), “that’s not true.” Rather than sound irritated, Romney, striking the same balance between assertiveness and grace that served him well the first time around, insisted that it was true. And so it went with taxes and trade, immigration and gun control, and every other topic randomly covered.
Jonathan Alter, a reliable Leftist, said that “Romney didn’t operate well when challenged.” Andrew Sullivan, another liberal acolyte, remarked that he was “almost disoriented by what happened last time,” and that it was about time we saw the real Obama.
The real Obama, of course, will do or say whatever it takes to win re-election. The bad news for the incumbent is that he’s done all he can do. Two debates into the game (with only one left), he has, in the order that it’s played out, left the nation limp, re-invigorated his base, and given independents no reason to vote for him.
In 2008, the independent vote was divided between McCain and Obama. The senator from Arizona, an honorable man, was seen as competent and over the hill. He lost because the senator from Chicago’s energetic campaign of hope and change was contagious. This year, there’s no such hope (pardon the pun). Romney will win because his down-to-earth approach to what ails us trumps Obama’s unrealistic utopian ambitions.